'Amy McDougall, Master Matchmaker'

'Amy McDougall, Master Matchmaker'

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It’s easy to overlook small publishers; they haven’t got the marketing resources to help their books leap out in front of readers. Today, I’m spotlighting a book from one of these small-but-mighty publishers, Fitzroy Books.

“Amy McDougall, Master Matchmaker,” by Gary Pedler, features a 13-year-old self-described “Blatina” girl narrator. At first I was skeptical, because the author, based on his photo, is an old, bald White guy.

But you know that saying about not judging a book by its cover? Don’t judge it by its author photo, either. I was immediately smitten by the character’s voice and world view.

In the opening scene, Amy is at an art show with her photographer father — and she notices people are looking at each other more than the art. Her dad explains about people watching.

Amy can understand why people might look at her.

“They were giving me that look that said, ‘What’s this Blatina chick doing with a blue-eyed white guy more than twice her age?’ I’d been getting that same look for years whenever I went out with Dad. Sometimes I wanted to wear a T-shirt that just spelled out the whole thing: MY NAME IS AMY. I’M ADOPTED. THIS IS TRAVIS WHO ADOPTED ME AND WHO ARE YOU?”

In this very first scene, we get a great sense of Amy, her dad and their outstanding relationship.

Later in the story, Amy describes the school cafeteria line and how she and her best friend, Grace, get caught between “a guy behind us who was in a hurry and kept poking me with his tray, and a girl ahead who wasn’t and kept gabbing with friends instead of moving forward.”

I had that moment of “Yes!” I’ve been there. I loved that Pedler took the time to put us right there in the cafeteria line.

We gradually learn (no info dumps for Pedler!) that Amy’s birth mother was Guatemalan and her birth father was African American. She lives in San Francisco with her adoptive dad, a husky, handsome, generally indecisive gay White man with blue eyes. She loves art, but not school, and she hates both the cafeteria and gym class.

Her best friend, Grace, started out as an enemy in third grade because Amy admired, and then stole, her plaid cap.

In addition to her relationships, especially with her dad and Grace, there are some other elements I especially liked.

First, the verbal interplay between Amy and Grace. I wish I could give a quick example, but you’ll just have to read the book. There’s a hilarious passage in which they are trying to figure out how to find a boyfriend for Amy’s dad and end up talking about similes. Shortly after that, Amy decides she needs to know what kind of person her dad is looking for. After interviewing her dad (unbeknownst to him), she lays it out as a recipe, including “1 cup charm,” “one package sense of humor” and a “pinch of common sense.” Adorable.

Amy successfully, in her eyes, matches up her dad with her Spanish teacher, Enrique Diaz. But there were some unexpected consequences that put Amy in the dumps. Grace tells Amy to quit complaining, at which point there is an entire chapter made up of news stories in the “Daily Complainer,” and the comments section includes irritable responses from Grace. They are hilarious, and this was a wonderfully inventive way to convey all Amy’s gripes without just one scene after another of her complaining to Grace about Enrique.

We also get to see the inside of a therapist’s office and what goes on in a counseling session. Because of Amy’s mother’s neglect and the fact that she is adopted, her counseling is required by the adoption agency.

These scenes, where Amy uses therapist Sophia as a sounding board for her various schemes, are a wonderful way to demystify therapy for young readers.

Amy is strong-willed — Grace calls her “bossy pants.” She doesn’t love school and doesn’t try very hard, but her schemes and insights make her a character readers will really bond with.

This book also reminded me of why I love middle-grade stories. While Amy has a tough back story, abandoned by her mom and bounced between foster homes, she is happy, well-adjusted and sorting out life, just like her classmates and other characters. There is the absence of angst that one might find in a YA book, and I love that Amy is so much more than her origin story.

So I urge you to order “Amy McDougall, Master Matchmaker” from Fitzroy books (fitzroybooks.com), and while you’re there, you can find “Reeni’s Turn,” which I reviewed a few months ago, and many other outstanding books for young readers.

Deb Aronson is an Urbana-based author whose nonfiction book about famed racehorse Rachel Alexandra is ‘a girl-power story on four legs.’

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